My Bulletproof Vest and the Illusion of Perfect Protection


When I interviewed civilians struggling to rebuild their homes, in Mosul and in Northeastern Syria, I would ask if they had hope for the future. They told me ISIS was gone, things were getting better, and I wrote that down. They were lifting the remains of a crumbled wall, felled by a missile or rocket or endless heavy gunfire, collecting the wreckage of their lives, as snipers pierced the air not two neighborhoods over. I would report their optimism, and I hated the thought of wearing my PPE while interviewing people so resilient yet vulnerable, so I kept it packed away in the car.

Our ideas of safety were asymmetric. Their idea of safety in that moment was in the absence of something—ISIS. What I wanted was a fixer I trusted and a better internet connection so I could talk to my wife on WhatsApp, eight hours away. I wished she was with me. Back at the apartment in Baghdad, I stayed up all night watching Netflix, pretending she was there too.

IV.

Now she won’t leave me alone. It’s March 2020 and we’re stuck in our house under a self-quarantine.

I’m on the phone, working, when she comes in wielding a tape measure. She handles it like a whip. The yellow metallic tape licks the carpet, smacks the floor, whacks the walls I had painted not four months ago.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Sorry, sorry, just want to get a measurement,” she whispers. She’s ordering furniture. Lockdown retail therapy.

“This isn’t that BBC News interview with the cute kids crashing in, get the hell outta here!”

She walks away, tape measure trailing behind her.

“And where’s my goddamn Chapstick?” I shout at her back. My father, who is also staying with us and looking after my son, the house growing smaller, coughs in the other room.

“Dad, are you sick?”

“Just fine, my boy.”

“Then why are you coughing? Why are your eyes red?”

“They’re red? I don’t know.”

“Elettra,” I shout, “have you seen my Chapstick?”

“Yeah, I threw it away because I didn’t want you asking me about it anymore.”

I’ve been looking for my Chapstick for three days now. I went from having five sticks to none. I am certain she forgot to check the pockets when she did our laundry, ruined my Chapstick, and tossed the evidence.

We’ve been in isolation together for weeks. First, self-isolation because we had returned to our home in America after leaving Italy, thinking we’d put distance between us and the coronavirus, and then under state-mandated stay-at-home orders from Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker.

I’m with people I love and trust, but the distance, which helped our relationships stay strong in the past, is gone. I hear everything. House noises. Chewing. Ants in the walls, I could swear. When and what my dad is doing in the bathroom.

Senses are turned up when under lockdown. I feel under siege, and there’s little I can do to protect myself. No bulletproof vest, no surgical mask, can give me the distance I suddenly crave. The rest of humanity feels the same way: Slathered in hand sanitizer and socially distanced, they are blanketed in worry. People who normally move through the world with little fear of attack suddenly fear everyone, dreading a lethal enemy that’s everywhere and nowhere.

Later, over dinner, my father, feeling insecure about being with us, our son asleep in the next room, asks if Elettra and I want some time alone together. I tell him no, but that we could use more time apart. The more we put distance between ourselves and the world, the farther we needed to get from each other, too. In this concentrated, enforced isolation, we’ve discovered that we can’t function so close together. It turns out my wife and I need regular absence to foster love. That time apart, those miles between us, came to imbue our marriage with urgency. When we were together, everything had a fleeting, precious quality. We knew our embrace would not last—each moment was something to cherish. Distance and time were barriers that enclosed our love, protecting it.


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